Before we begin Acts 11, I want to take a breather to summarize the high points of our study up to now so that we don’t get too swamped in facts, new terms and lose our way.
Acts is the structural bridge that spans two eras: the Old and the New Testament. It is the binding link between the Law of Moses and the advent of Messiah.
However, most important for our proper understanding is that Acts is a 100% Jewish bridge. It is a bridge built entirely upon the bedrock of Jewish society, the steel of Jewish thought processes, the connecting rivets of the Jewish religion of that era, and the labor of the historical traditions that had been developed and nurtured over the centuries that drove Jewish behavior and decisions.
All the writers of the Old Testament were Jews (or more correctly, Hebrews), and all the writers of the New Testament were Jews except for the God-fearer Luke who seems to have remained a Christ-believing Gentile. Luke threw in his lot with the Jewish disciples and apostles of Christ, even becoming a traveling companion of Paul, and all that might have been missing from him becoming a Jewish convert was circumcision.
So what we’ve learned so far in the Book of Acts are things that, for some, can be unsettling; for others, informing and enlightening.
For instance: that the belief in Jesus Christ arose from the religion of the Jews, just as Yeshua Himself was a hereditary, genealogical and cultural Jew. The religion of the Jews since sometime after the Babylonian exile is what we today call Judaism, even though there is no evidence that during New Testament times, or before, that the term Judaism was used to label the Jewish religion.
We also discovered that the religion of the Jews in New Testament times was practiced much like Christianity is practiced in modern times. That is, Judaism consisted of many factions that shared a few commonly held and fundamental beliefs among them, but also many more beliefs that were at opposite ends of the spectrum (such as if the bodily resurrection was possible).
Further, because of the Babylonian exile some 600 years before New Testament times, and because of the vast majority of exiled Jews, the Jews had voluntarily decided to remain in the various foreign lands to which they were sent.
There was a distinct split in how Judaism was practiced by the Jews who lived in the Holy Land versus those who lived out in the Diaspora (that is, the Jews who lived in foreign lands). The Jews living in the Holy Land were outnumbered 20 to 1 by the Diaspora Jews.
However, the Diaspora Jews, in general, looked to Jerusalem for spiritual direction because that’s where the Temple, the Priesthood, and the Sanhedrin were located.
We learned that there were other factional splits in Judaism as well, and these factional divisions play significant roles in our New Testament stories and their outcomes.
The most familiar one to Christians is the split between the Sadducees and the Pharisees; the two most predominant social/ religious/political parties of the Jews.
But the cause of this separation is not apparent without understanding the basics of Judaism and the Jewish society in that era. It was the aristocratic Sadducees who operated the Temple, controlled the Priesthood and ran the Jewish High Court: the Sanhedrin.
But it was the learned Pharisees who were the overseers of the Synagogues. Thus the Synagogue and the Temple were rivals and held little in common.
The Synagogue looked much like a typical Church looks with its building, seating, speaking platform, and authority structure. The Synagogue is where Rabbis and others taught their doctrines, and Bible interpretations and the Synagogue was the center of daily Jewish religious life.
There was only one Temple, but there were hundreds and hundreds of Synagogues. And there was a Synagogue present generally wherever a Jewish community of sustainable size would spring up.
Especially for the Diaspora Jews who lived hundreds, and in some cases a thousand miles or more, away from Jerusalem. It wasn’t customary that they would ever in their lifetimes come to visit the Temple for a Biblical festival or to sacrifice there; it was simply too expensive, too time-consuming, too dangerous and too impractical.
So their attachment to their Jewish religion was to their local Synagogue. When people regularly went to worship and have fellowship, even in Jerusalem, it was usually not to the Temple but their Synagogue.
So we must understand that for Yeshua and all His followers, as well as all regular Jews, theirs’ was the world of the Synagogue, and only on certain ceremonial occasions did they venture to the Temple and interact with the priests.
The central doctrinal tenets of the Synagogue can be summed up in one Hebrew word: Halakhah. Halakhah was a merging and mingling of the Biblical Torah, Traditions, and ancient customs.
It was their manual not just for their religion, but also for their everyday behavior. It was not a written manual yet (that wouldn’t come for another couple of centuries), rather it was taught orally and enforced by various Jewish religious authorities who didn’t agree on many important matters.
And this is one of the main reasons for the several factions of Judaism that developed and the never-ending infighting that usually only amounted to passionate debate but at times spilled over into violence.
All the disciples and followers of Yeshua belonged to one faction or another of Judaism, and to one Synagogue or another, so they didn’t have a single unified mindset even after coming to belief.
And we see this play out early on among the disciples as we hear of Hellenist Believers (Greek speakers) versus Hebrew Believers (Hebrew speakers) who don’t trust one another to impartially dole out money and food to the widows among their group.
Despite their various levels of devotion to Judaism, for the Jewish people, there was no getting around the reality that in New Testament times the world was a gentile Roman world. The Holy Lands were in the hands of the Romans, and the Diaspora Jews lived in one province or another of the Roman Empire.
It had been this way for going on two centuries by the time of Christ’s execution. The Jews of the Diaspora by necessity dealt every day with the majority Gentile world and its many complexities.
Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, slowly and imperceptibly the Diaspora Jews found themselves looking and thinking more and more like their gentile neighbors.
But the more pious and zealous Jews of the Holy Land who lived nearer to the greatest symbol of their heritage, the Temple, and closer to the power center of Jewish religious authority, Jerusalem, tended to keep as much distance between themselves and the Gentiles as possible.
It was in this context that a new faction of Judaism, one born in the world of the Synagogue, arose. This faction believed that Yeshua of Nazareth was the Messiah they had been waiting for.
But, progressive revelation visibly demonstrated that He was a different kind of Messiah than the long-held Jewish customs and traditions had said they were to expect; He would not lead the Jews in a revolt against Rome, which was expectation #1.
Further, He was not a mere man; He was indeed a descendant of King David, but also He claimed to be God. Even more perplexing, if not disappointing, He would achieve the goal of bringing in the Kingdom of God, a Jewish Kingdom, through His death and resurrection; not through his personal charisma and a series of stunning military victories that would liberate Judah.
More this would be a spiritual kingdom as opposed to a typical physical kingdom. Most Jews then were like most Christians today: this simply was not what their trusted religious leaders had told them a Messiah would be and do, so even the vivid reality of Yeshua and of His miracles that so many of them personally witnessed didn’t sway them.
Maintaining their familiar doctrinal status quo was what mattered, and it was also what the Jewish religious leadership demanded: not accepting the newly revealed truth.
Thus we find upon Yeshua’s death that a small group of 12 disciples took up the cause of its leadership, and their particular faction of Judaism became known as The Way.
They didn’t stop going to Synagogue; they didn’t stop going to the Temple. They didn’t stop practicing their Judaism or stop obeying the Law of Moses.
In fact on one particular occasion, the first Shavuot (Pentecost) after Yeshua’s crucifixion, the 12 disciples (all Galileans) were in Jerusalem in obedience to the Law, and along with thousands of Diaspora Jews who were there for the same purpose, saw and experienced something that shocked them.
The Holy Spirit visibly descended upon Yeshua’s followers, and they all began speaking in foreign languages that they didn’t know. Peter and others of the disciples used this event as a springboard to teach other Jews about Yeshua and what the coming of the Spirit meant, but they were arrested by the High Priest and told to stop speaking about this Yeshua.
Not long afterward, a Greek-speaking Jewish Believer from Samaria named Stephen went to one of the 400 or so synagogues in Jerusalem to preach the Gospel to them, and they became so incensed by what he had to say that they took him to the Sanhedrin.
In a speedy kangaroo court trial, he was convicted and promptly stoned to death. Immediately following this, many Jews in Jerusalem set out to destroy this new radical faction of Judaism and so the terrified Believers fled Jerusalem to safer parts of the Holy Land and nearby countries.
In response, the Sanhedrin sent Paul, a strict Pharisee, after one particular group of Believers who had fled to safety in Damascus, Syria.
On the journey to arrest these Jesus sympathizers Christ confronted Paul in spirit form, from Heaven, and Paul, although blinded, became the newest Believer. The same zeal he had for rounding up and punishing Believers he would now use to spread the Gospel message.
Back in the Holy Land Peter and James, Yeshua’s brother were the unquestioned leaders of The Way. Peter was wandering around, making new disciples of the Holy Land Jews and checking in on the welfare of some of the scattered Believers, when he had a vision that would forever change yet another fundamental mistake in his Halakhah-based Jewish theology.
But before he had his vision, a gentile Roman army officer named Cornelius had a visitation from an angel telling him to go and fetch Peter because there was something Peter needed to say to him.
Peter’s vision happened shortly afterward. The vision was a parable; it involved a cloth sheet being lowered down from Heaven with all kinds of animals in it, some (if not all) being prohibited as food for Jews according to the Law of Moses. God told Peter to kill and eat. This vision greatly confused Peter not only because of the instruction but because the words used didn’t pertain to food; they related to people and objects.
As the men arrived to escort Peter to visit Cornelius, Peter suddenly realized what this vision/parable was telling him; first, it had nothing to do with food at all.
Rather it was that Peter (and all Jews) were to stop regarding Gentiles as unclean. Why? Had God recently cleansed the gentiles and made them clean? No. God had created gentiles clean (as He does all things).
In fact, Gentiles represented a spiritual status the Torah calls common. Common was a fine status, and was not evil or wrong and certainly not unclean. It was Judaism that had developed traditions that declared that Gentiles were unclean and so Jews couldn’t have anything to do with them or they would risk becoming ritually defiled.
Thus since God had entrusted the Jews with the Good News, then this faulty theology about Gentiles would have to be straightened out so that Believing Jews would go to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles could be saved as well.
While Peter is talking to Cornelius and his household, in a second Pentecost event, the Holy Spirit visibly fell on these Gentiles, indicating that they believed the Gospel message and that God had accepted them.
And this stunned Peter and six other Jewish Believers who had come with him. They never imagined it possible that gentiles could accept the Jewish Messiah, and that God would accept them, without them first becoming Jews.
But now that they had accepted Christ, and the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) had fallen on them, ought they to be circumcised to become official Jews? Many Jewish Believers thought so, and our Bibles usually call them the Circumcision faction.
So this would remain a contentious issue within The Way, and it appears that Peter was as ambivalent about it as Paul was outspoken against it.
And this pretty well sums up the road we’ve thus far traveled in the Book of Acts. We will continue our journey in Acts in my next blog post.